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Tribute to Richard Papen: One of Delaware’s finest

By
Tim Linden

Produce veteran Richard George Papen, 84, died unexpectedly of a heart attack on April 16, after spending his entire career in the East Coast vegetable business in the family farming operation.

Mr. Papen was born on June 5, 1937, the oldest son of George and Mary Papen. He was born in Somerville, NJ, where his father and his two uncles farmed. When Richard was 15, the farming family moved to the greener pastures of Dover, DE, where Papen spent the entirety of his career, both running Papen Farms Inc. and being its main salesman.

At Caesar Rodney High School in Dover, Papen was an outstanding athlete lettering in four varsity sports in one year, which is a very rare feat. His sister, Janet Meyer, who also worked in the family business for many years, and still does, remembers her brother helping out on the farm even as a young boy in New Jersey.

“I remember he would go to the New York produce market with our dad in the late 1940s,” she said. “I don’t think he ever wanted to do anything else but join the family business.”

It was in 1952 that the Papens began farming 240 acres in Dover, growing a variety of crops. “To the best of my recollection, back in the 50s, we concentrated on tomatoes, spinach and cukes,” said Meyer. “For most of the time our major crops have been cabbage, sweet corn and cucumbers. Today we farm well over 2,000 acres.”

Meyer said the crop mix is altered from time to time with the selection based on the market and what they think they can sell. That decision has been made much more difficult with the passing of Papen. Though he hired Chris Cunningham to take over sales about a year ago, Papen was still very involved in the operation when he died. Meyer reiterated that her 84-year-old brother “was in great shape and had a great mind even at the end. He definitely went too soon.”

She added that although he officially retired at the end of 2020, his home was right around the corner from the office and Papen spent much of his day there. “We weren’t big on titles,” said Meyer. “He was never the president, but everyone looked to him for the final say — up until his last day.”

Papen’s daughter, Carol Traegler, added that her father “was larger than life. He was very well respected.”

Richard Papen with company President Jeffrey Papen and Vice President Anthony Kaczka.
Richard Papen with company President Jeffrey Papen
and Vice President Anthony Kaczka.

Soon after he joined the company on a full-time basis, he started working in the sales office and working inside became his forte. His brother, Jim, was the outside guy. That role is now under the purview of Jeffrey Papen, who is the company president and Jim’s son. Traegler and Meyer are also materially involved running the administrative side of the business. Another member of the Papen family tree, Anthony Kaczka, is also part of senior management as a vice president as is Jim Papen. There are 17 full-time employees, with the majority of them being members of the Papen family.

It has been a rough 18 months emotionally for Papen Farms as prior to the death of Papen in April, his son, Kenneth Papen, died in December of 2020. Meyer and Traegler said these are difficult times, but the company is proverbially putting one foot in front of the next and soldiering on. This year’s crops include cabbage, green beans and sweet corn.

Meyer and Traegler said that many friends and colleagues of Papen have left memories on the funeral home tribute page attesting to his impact as a mentor, industry colleague and friend.

Papen was a pillar of the farming community at large. He was president of the Council of Farm Organizations and a director of the Delaware State Farm Bureau, and a member of the Fruit & Vegetable Growers Association of Delaware, United Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Association, the Governor’s Council on Agriculture, and many other agricultural related organizations. 

Papen is survived by his wife of 65 years, June Voshell Papen; and his daughters, Carol Traegler and Kathy Papen Lane, as well as many other close relatives.

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